Today's young protesters don't remember 1968.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trump and Trump Protesters Feed Off Each Other

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I know you’d like to read about something other than Donald Trump. I’d sure like to write that column. But we shouldn't look away from this slow-motion train wreck. It is turning American politics into something we formerly read about only in international news pages or history books.

The latest turn is, of course, Trump’s Chicago rally, which was infiltrated by protesters bent on disruption, and then turned toward violence when the rally was abruptly canceled.

Donald Trump must accept much of the responsibility for these events. He has openly and repeatedly celebrated the idea of whacking on protesters. When you reminisce about the good old days when people knew what to do with people who made trouble, and you say that you’d like to punch those fellows in the face, and you offer to pay the legal bills of anyone who assaults a protester, you are going to attract people to your events who are looking for trouble.

Once there, these people contribute to a dangerous mob dynamic that Josh Marshall describes:

People act very differently in crowd or mob situations than they do on their own. There are various theories as to just why this is the case - again, there's a whole social science and group psychology literature about it. But crowd/mob situations are profoundly disinhibiting events. People sometimes do things they themselves not only regret but almost literally can't believe they did.

Nor are the people looking for trouble only on your own side. Anywhere there are two or more activists gathered together, there is someone who can come up with a reason why theft, vandalism, physical takeovers of common public space and so forth are justified by the magnitude of the injustices they face. There is no guarantee that there will be an equivalently loud voice of reason to explain the sad facts: that virtually every protest movement is in a minority, either in what followers believe or in the intensity of their devotion to it; that political change requires getting the support of numerous moderates who might support your cause but also might not, and at best will never care as much as you do; and that nothing alienates those folks faster than disorder, including calculated violations of broad social norms.

College students now are growing up on campuses strongly influenced by the radicals of the 1960s, which has been fertile ground for an increasingly illiberal and disorderly definition of “peaceful protest.” Read the description of the plan that University of Illinois kids had for protesting Trump:

The plan was straightforward. Once Trump began speaking, Lewis would begin sending messages to the groups around the hall—and, so prompted, they would each stand up, chanting, and disrupt the speech. It would then build to a crescendo: right there, in front of Trump’s podium. Lewis and the other protesters in front were going to link up—“arm in arm,” he instructed the students around him—and make their presence known in a silent, but conspicuous, circle. “It will speak louder,” Lewis said, “than anybody who interrupts Trump’s speeches.”

Violent? No. Troubling, unwise, and likely to spark violence in an already charged atmosphere? Unfortunately, yes.

Trying to silence speakers they don’t like, along with using human chains and other protest tactics to take over central spaces, violates a norm cherished all the way up to the Supreme Court: that a person who has rented an auditorium has a right to speak, no matter how atrocious the sentiment expressed.

Put Trump’s nudge-nudge, wink-wink incitement to authoritarian violence together with protesters who are increasingly asserting their right to physically control spaces and deny a platform to speakers they don’t like, add in that soupcon of enthusiastic belligerents on each side who actively seek such charged atmospheres, and you have a recipe for what we saw on Friday night.  

I’m not suggesting that disrupting a Trump rally is morally equivalent to his open celebration of violence. But you don’t need to think that the two sides are morally equivalent to believe that they should both knock it off before someone gets killed. We’ve already seen a protester trying to run toward the stage while Trump was speaking, an action which could have gotten him shot by the Secret Service, and which suggests that a dangerously permissive atmosphere is growing on the left in response to Trump’s outrages. It carries a whiff, as Jonathan Chait suggests, “of the notion that the election will be settled in the streets -- a poisonous idea that is unsafe in even the smallest doses.” The last time we saw this notion was in 1968, a year that was good neither for the left nor for American democracy.

Everyone should be working to keep that sentiment from spreading, or spiraling out of control. That, however, seems a forlorn hope. The sort of leadership that might have exercised that sort of control no longer seems to exist on the left, where social media increasingly seems to be replacing the old organizing networks. On the right, of course, we can always appeal to Donald Trump. We can also appeal to the nearest brick wall, for all the good it will do us.

A Monmouth poll showing that Friday night’s events may actually have helped Trump in Florida -- 22 percent of respondents said they were now more likely to vote for Trump, compared to only 11 percent who said less likely.  And so far in this election, the polls have proven a far better predictor of Trump’s behavior than ethics or shame or conventional campaign wisdom. If anyone is going to back down it will have to be the left, not because they are more in the wrong, but because Donald Trump clearly feels that this sort of rhetoric, and even its fruits, accrue to his benefit.

But what good does it do one to point this out? Even if there were more central authority among the left-wing activists, I’m not sure they’d listen to appeals noting that their tactics were increasing the risks of violence, and also, probably helping Donald Trump. I floated just such an appeal on Twitter this weekend, and was rapidly deluged by people explaining that it wasn’t their responsibility to prevent violence from happening, that radical disruption is a powerful agent of social change, and I should generally just check my privilege and shut up because Trump is terrible and they knew what they were doing.

And perhaps they do. There’s a famous essay by economist Bruce Yandle called “Bootleggers and Baptists,” in which he points out that groups that are normally mortal foes are often actually common beneficiaries, even allies, on political issues.  Temperance workers are of course gratified by laws that forbid the sale of alcohol, but so are bootleggers who thereby find their market increased. It’s obvious once you hear it, but it is often very hard to look past the deep ideological divides to see how each group’s agenda empowers the other.

I wonder if a similar thing isn’t happening here. Trump’s outrageous remarks attract the attention of disruptive protesters, the disruptive protesters generate more outrageous remarks to protest, and the escalating anger builds solidarity on both sides.  It is only the rest of us who lose, as our politics become more poisonous, our discourse coarser, and our political disputes ever more likely to be settled with fists rather than words.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net